In Australian Bushfires in Art I, I suggested that the biggest, oldest and most important image of bushfires in Australian art was by John Longstaff. His painting, called Gippsland, Sunday night, 20th Feb 1898 was indeed large (145 x 199 cms) but I should have examined an earlier painting first.
Longstaff, Gippsland, Sunday night, 20th Feb 1898
Strutt never forgot his first experience of a blazing hot, dry Australian summer and made many contemporaneous sketches. Later on he used those sketches to compose the final painting.
After spending some time on the gold fields of Ballarat, Strutt returned to Melbourne in mid-1853 and became actively involved in the city’s cultural life, accepting some significant portrait commissions and joining the Victorian Society of Fine Arts.
Extract from Strutt, Black Thursday, 6th Feb 1851.
Strutt returned to England in 1862 where he continued to work on his sketches, producing at least three major oil paintings that reflected his Australian experiences. None was as significant as Black Thursday, 6th February 1851, now one of Australia's most important colonial paintings. It was completed in 1864, measuring a huge size (107 x 343 cm). This complex work showed groups of terrified people and animals fleeing the dense smoke of the advancing fire. In the foreground was an intentional pile of dead animals, skulls and bones! The Age Newspaper wrote in September 1864: 'The proper destination of this really historical picture is the colony itself, where it should be preserved in any public collection as a memorial of a terrible incident in colonial annals”.
Strutt died in Sussex in 1915. Many decades after the painting was completed, it finally did leave Britain and was shipped to the La Trobe Picture Collection in Melbourne.
Which is the finer painting, Strutt or Longstaff? The Strutt image was so crowded with terrorised people and animals, it became a fixed tableau across the wide canvas. It seemed like the artist used the particularly Australian experience of a bushfire to produce an epic European history-drama. Strutt's painting was set in a sandy desert with no fuel for a bushfire to consume.
In the Longstaff painting, the trees dominated the landscape and provided fuel for the fiery inferno. The Longstaff painting therefore seemed more believable, and much more Australian.
Eyre Peninsula South Australia, Jan 2005, photo
In January 2005, the Eyre Peninsula was the scene of a devastating bushfire in which nine people were killed and another 120 hospitalised. The death toll might have been higher, had it not been for the orders to residents to leave their homes and head to the beaches to the east. Even so, it was one of Australia’s worst bushfires since the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983.